Tackling a raw subject: Underground milk
I lived in northern New Mexico in my mid-20s — longer ago now than I want to admit — in the part of the world known as “the enchanted circle.” I was skiing and working at Taos, an enchanting mountain to be sure.
The town was striking for its fascinating mingling of cultures, its long history dating back to Spanish settlement in the 1600s and beyond, the Spanglish the locals spoke, and a general sense of foreignness and lawlessness. Easterners who believe New Mexico is not part of the U.S. might be right.
There was a store on the south end of town called The Farm filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, many that were new to me such as elephant heart plums and fresh figs. They also sold raw milk, which I’d never seen before, as it was illegal in Colorado.
I got in the habit of buying it. My Costa Rican sweetheart showed me how to make “leche agria” by exposing the fresh unpasteurized milk to bacteria in the air. It made a cultured milk similar to kefir that was delicious blended with fruit and sugar.
Around the same time I learned about the Golden Dairy. It sold the creamiest eggnog from a modest milk house off the Rocky Flats highway outside Golden. A heavy dairy smell permeated the little room with glass-doored refrigerators stocked with milk, cream and, at Christmastime, eggnog.
Several years ago the holdout dairy disappeared forever. A major development of tract houses and a doggy day-care center took its place.
Raw milk is in demand but can be hard to come by. In the 2015 legislative season, 29 bills in 19 states grappled with the question of raw milk. Eight of them sought to legalize retail sales.
In 1924, the federal government came up with a set of model regulations for pasteurizing and handling milk for “Grade A” designation. The Pasteurized Milk Ordinance is meant to prevent milk-borne disease, and all 50 states have adopted its requirements. However, with the current interest in less-processed local food, people are looking for ways around the law, and it’s possible to legally buy and sell raw, unpasteurized milk in 30 states.
In Colorado, retail sale of pot is legal, but not raw milk. Colorado is one of a half-dozen states where you can get raw milk by buying a share of a milk cow. All the states to our west allow retail sales either in stores or, in Oregon, at farmers markets. Several Midwestern states allow sales right off the farm. In the South and East, it’s mostly illegal.
My milk at home comes in 1-gallon glass jars with thick, rich cream floating on top. I pull it out of one of three refrigerators in a kitchen with a door to the outside in a house somewhere west of here near the Colorado River. A tall metal milk bucket is usually drying in the sink, and across the county road you can see the black and white milk cows. Among all the dairy cow decorations on the walls, a sign declares, “MILK FOR PETS ONLY.”
For 40 years Joe and Alice have milked cows in Mesa County. Dozens of customers pick up milk for their families weekly on a rigid schedule. Some have done so for decades. This loyalty indicates a track record of safe handling of cows and milk that I trust.
My veterinarian niece teaches at CSU in Fort Collins in addition to her clinical practice and specialties. She buys Colby Farm lamb from us, but when I tell her about the raw milk, she shudders and looks dubious. She tells me she would never drink raw milk. It’s too hazardous. “As a vet, I just know too much about it,” Bonnie explains.
Indeed, it was milk-borne disease that first brought my father’s side of the family to Colorado from Kentucky.
Since my father passed on six years ago on New Year’s Day, I’ve been driving his car, and Dad’s old pioneer license plate sits in my office window. There’s a picture of a horse and buggy with the words “Settler’s Descendant” underneath.
My grandfather was the eldest of nine children. His family came to Colorado for the beneficial climate after his sister caught tuberculosis from the family milk cow.
The sister died young, but my grandfather stayed on in Pueblo. He ran a feed and supply store downtown with a partner. When the Arkansas River flooded disastrously in 1921, his business floated away, but unlike most others, they had fortuitously bought insurance. They used the payoff to start the Red Seal potato chip company.
I drizzle impossibly rich cream into my morning coffee. It’s so good, it must be illegal.
The names have been changed to protect the farmers. Marilyn Gleason lives in the raw in Peach Valley, and welcomes your comments and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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